- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Heavy fighting raged Tuesday in the western Libyan city of Misrata, witnesses said, while a NATO commander complained the alliance was having trouble destroying Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s mortars and rockets attacking rebels there, and Britain said it would send senior military officers to advise the opposition in the east.

A senior Libyan official, meanwhile, ruled out the possibility of allowing foreign troops to escort humanitarian aid convoys in Libya, saying the government would view such a deployment as a military mission.

Explosions and gunfire were heard in central Misrata, the country’s third-largest city, with clashes between government troops and rebels, said a resident who identified himself only by his given name, Abdel Salam, for fear of retaliation. The city has been besieged by government forces for more than a month.

NATO planes flew over Misrata while the shelling from Gadhafi forces continued, he said, adding that the only targets the alliance hit were radars and air defenses north of the city on Monday night.

NATOBrig. Gen. Mark van Uhm of the Netherlands said fighting has been intense in Misrata for the past 10 days, and he said his forces have destroyed more than 40 tanks and several armored personnel carriers there.

“The situation on the ground is fluid there, with ground being won and lost by both sides,” Gen. van Uhm said at NATO headquarters in Brussels, adding, “Gadhafi’s forces have shelled Misrata indiscriminately.”

But he cautioned that “there is a limit to what can be achieved by airpower to stop fighting in a city.”

“We are doing everything to prevent civilian casualties by our own attacks (while) degrading (Col. Gadhafi‘s) ability to sustain forces there,” he said.

Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola of Italy, the chairman of the alliance’s military committee, said in Rome that even though NATO operations have done “quite significant damage” to the Libyan regime’s heavy weaponry, what Col. Gadhafi has left is “still considerable.”

Asked if more NATO air power and bombing are needed, Adm. Di Paola said any “significantly additional” allied contribution would be welcome.

Given NATO’s humanitarian mandate reflecting the U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya, which does not allow ground forces, “it’s very difficult” to stop the regime’s firepower on Misrata, he said.

“It’s not a conventional war,” the admiral said, declining to say just how much of the regime’s firepower has been eliminated or put out of action by NATO’s operations so far.

“What is significant is we’re preventing Gadhafi from using the full potential of his firepower. Unfortunately, we’re not able so far to deny him use of all his firepower,” Adm. Di Paola said.

Adm. Di Paola said the alliance had “yet to succeed” in neutralizing the mortars and rockets, especially inside Misrata, where it is “very hard” to destroy that firepower without inflicting civilian casualties.

As the allies seek ways to break the battlefield stalemate in the uprising that began in February, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it will send a team of up to 20 senior military advisers to Benghazi to help organize the country’s haphazard opposition forces.

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